Monday, March 30, 2015

Theater Review: The Caucasian Chalk Circle -- Yale Repertory

The cast of The Causcasian Chalk Circle at Yale Rep. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Circling in on the Storytelling Enhances an Old Play
By Lauren Yarger
Director Liz Diamond appears to abandon the play-within-a-play format for presenting Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle at Yale Repertory Theatre and the play seems much better for it.

She focuses instead on the human story, enhanced by music composed by David Lang (with Music Direction by Daniel Schlosberg, who does additional musical arrangements, with Drew McVety, and Singing Coaching by Anne Tofflemire.) In fact, Diamond’s direction opens up new interpretation to the dialogue, which even when it is not being sung, sounds lyrical, especially on the tongue of Steven Skybel, who plays to the roles of the Singer and Azdak, a judge.

Before I get too ahead of myself, here is the plot:

Set in the war-torn country of Grusinia in the Caucasus border region between Russia and Persia, Grusha (Shaunette Renée Wilson), a young servant girl, promises to wait for her soldier love, Simon (Jonathan Majors) until his return. When revolution turns the capitol into a war zone, she rescues Michael, the son of the deposed Governor (Max Gordon Moore) and his wife, Natella (Brenda Meaney), who abandons the child while being preoccupied with selecting furs and shoes to accompany her in exile (the costumes designed for her by Soule Golden include outrageously high heels, indicative of her desire to rise above everyone else).

Grusha evades ruthless soldiers searching for the heir and takes Michael into the mountains. She escapes to the farm of her brother, Lavrenti (Jessie J. Perez) and his suspicious wife (also played by Meaney) and raises him as her own. To avoid gossip, as well as to protect Michael’s identity, Grusha agrees to marry dying neighbor, Yussup (Aubie Merrylees). When the war ends, it seems Yussup was just faking to avoid the draft and now he expects Grusha to act as a wife. She refuses, thinking still of her love Simon, who suddenly returns from war.

Also returning is Natella, who wants her little boy (now played by Kourtney Savage) back. The case goes to court, before Judge Azdak, nephew of a Fat Prince (Perez), who rules that the boy be placed in the center of a circle drawn with chalk, then tells the two women claiming to be his mother to pull him by each of his arms until one wins.  Grusha, who really loves the boy, cannot pull him toward her for fear of hurting Michael. (Yes, you recognize a variation of the story from Confucius and earlier from the book of Solomon).

Now let me tell you that I am not a fan of this play (or of Brecht, for that matter. Yes, blasphemy in the theater world. I know.) At almost three hours it’s way too long and most of the second act could easily be cut. This production is immensely watchable, however, thanks to Diamond’s fresh direction and solid performances (Wilson is compelling) that make it a piece of musical storytelling instead of a “what-the-heck?” confusion of a play within the play (this translation is from the German by James and Tania Stern with lyrics by W.H. Auden). Modern touches (there’s even a selfie) are inserted skillfully.

It is appealing to the eye as well, with Chika Shimizu’s large, brooding sets conveying the bleakness of the surroundings while Golden’s costumes infuse muted color – and in the case of Grusha, there’s even a pretty print – to offer individuals some happiness and hope. 

Yale Rep's production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle runs at the University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven through April 11. Performance times vary. Tickets $20-$99; (203) 432-1234, Box Office (1120 Chapel St.). Student, senior, and group rates are also available.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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